Happiness is Simple, Not Easy (Part 2 of 3)
Idea #2 — Understanding and Defeating Loneliness
To prime our internal climate for happiness, we must work to understand our nature and behave in ways that align with it. Doing so in a vacuum, however, would still leave us deeply unfulfilled. For most of us, a life in solitude is hardly a life at all. Therefore, as a part of our commitment to live a happy life, we must learn how to build deeply fulfilling, long-lasting relationships.
Social connection is the melody of experience. Relationships are the scaffolding on which we build our lives. but we so often get them wrong. We’re oblivious to how to form and maintain relationships, but we’re also embarrassed to admit the loneliness that comes from this. So, we don’t talk about it.
The truth is, you probably feel lonelier than you’d even admit to yourself. Like I do. Like we all do.
The statistics on loneliness are alarming: 61% of Americans report being lonely on a regular basis. That’s three out of every five people. And loneliness is complex, with far-reaching consequences. Psychologists define it as painful isolation, but it’s not merely a psychological ailment.
On average, lonely individuals have stronger inflammatory responses, higher blood pressure, more adverse cardiac events, and a shorter life expectancy. Loneliness can be physically painful. We must first understand how loneliness works if we want to have any hopes of “curing” it.
Fundamentally, loneliness is the conscious acknowledgement of feeling inadequately seen and known. We rarely feel deeply understood by those around us and we seldom exist at the outer bounds of our emotional capacity. Even if we don’t realize it, we have a lot more to give. It’s not a coincidence that we feel both misunderstood and emotionally under-utilized simultaneously.
When we are expending emotional energy, we are making our values, thought processes, and lived experiences known. For those of us that are operating with excess emotional capacity, we might have an opportunity to put more into others, becoming more understood in the process.
Friends can show up at our doorstep, promising a salve from the isolation, but their lack of awareness about us provides little tangible relief. Their promise of company can somehow thrust us deeper into loneliness. For many, we are so familiar with the obligatory co-existence under the guise of companionship that we fail to recognize that we are harming ourselves.
Know Us and Like Us
We feel lonely despite the constant interaction with other people because we don’t show up to our relationships with our authentic selves. Instead of sharing intimate details about our worries, fears, dreams, and ambitions, we feel more comfortable talking about sports or the weather. We believe that sharing how we feel with those around us will scare them away or make us seem somehow defective or abnormal. We feel more in our element when the people who care most about us are at an arm’s length. Too far to hurt us, sure, but too far to hug us, too.
We choose not to share ourselves for one of two reasons: we don’t want to, or we don’t know how (or both). We may not want to because we worry that we’ll put all the necessary effort into communicating our internal states, only to repulse our friends and loved ones. We fear that we’ll act as a tour guide for the ugliest parts of ourselves, and we will have nobody in our life interested in taking another trip. In the words of Alain De Botton, we feel as though “no one could both know us and like us.”
Or we may simply be incapable of communicating our internal state. We sometimes feel overcome by the futility of language. We have so much to say but don’t know what words to use. In the past, we may have given it our best effort but felt ourselves failing miserably after a few short sentences. Maybe we were met with bewildered eyes and a mouth held ajar from those struggling to keep up. Once we finished, our friends would nod vigorously and assure us that they knew exactly what we were talking about, their hopeless confusion painfully obvious.
When we feel lonely, we are craving to be loved. But to be loved, we must be known, and to be known, we must share. It’s a pyramid that builds on itself. Connection is contingent on our ability to share appropriately and meaningfully with those around whom we feel safe. That’s why interaction is not a substitute for intimacy. Interaction without authenticity feels obligatory and draining, inspiring feelings of loneliness. Only authentic interaction breeds intimacy, the true currency of relationships.
We may be bad at sharing intimately with others, but we’re not good at creating welcoming environments that invite others to be intimate either. Each of us walk through the world as complex creatures, teeming with unique desires, preferences, anxieties, and goals. However, we rarely, if ever, consider the multifacetedness of others. We see ourselves as endlessly intricate but see others as a caricature of the side they choose to show us.
We feel dizzy when we try to imagine the sheer vastness of human experience if everyone in our life was as emotional and brimming with thoughts as we are. But they are, and they always have been. Paradoxically, it’s the universal experience of feeling alone that connects us all.
The Eternal Struggle
We struggle to balance authenticity and acceptability. We believe the more honest we are, the less acceptable we become. We feel we are forever walking a tightrope in our relationships, one unwelcome comment away from being disposed of. Share too little, and they will never know us, but share too much, and they’ll know so much that they’ll leave. We’re stuck.
Feeling lonely may as well be a prerequisite for connection since we all have that shared experience. But how can we foster relationships that actively and reliably contribute to our happiness and relieve us of this loneliness? Further, how do we engage with others so we don’t feel like we’ve mismanaged our energy?
How to Find Friends
Finding and making friends is hard. The deepest, most valuable friendships are with people who help carve out our identity, inform our sense of purpose, and inspire us to be better by expanding our world.
These friendships transcend physical space, making us feel less alone even in the other person’s absence. We feel comforted not by their presence, but rather in knowing that they exist on Earth at the same time as us.Most of the time, that’s enough.
Counterintuitively, we don’t find great people when we obsess over finding great people. We find great people when great people are in our vicinity doing what they love, and we’re able to offer some sort of skill to facilitate them on their journey. We may be better served by asking, “Which problems do I find interesting enough to solve? Where do I want to pour my energy right now?” instead of asking, “Where can I find great people?”.
People doing what they love have an irresistible gravitational pull about them that draws in people from their periphery. Doing what we authentically enjoy is immensely attractive.
We develop deep relationships with someone when working on something bigger than ourselves. Friendships that consist of nothing but “catching up” and talking about past events have a low ceiling. Discussions that center around this third entity will feel like a chisel hammering away at marble, slowly revealing our friends in their true, authentic form. The resulting consistent and intimate conversation, focused on problem-solving and shared experience, is the seat of connection.
How to Deepen Relationships
For any relationship to transcend chatter, we must show up — all at the same time. We must make known our frightening complexity and dramatic darkness. We must share where our mind goes when we remove its leash. We must acknowledge that loneliness is a life sentence for those unwilling to put in the work necessary to be known.
Intimacy exists on a spectrum. It would be inappropriate to share childhood trauma with a mere acquaintance or discuss your marital problems in a business meeting. We must exercise discretion when choosing how to be vulnerable and authentic. We must be aware of the power over ourselves we hand others when we choose to be vulnerable.
We must choose whether we are willing to take the risk to reap the rewards of an intimate friendship. After all that thinking, we must also think about which signals we are sending and if we are creating a safe and comforting environment for others to take that same leap of faith with us.
The right relationships will help us discover facets of our essence that we may not have paid enough attention to alone. We’re so obsessed with who we want to be that we pay little attention to who we are. This preoccupation with who we want to be causes us to miss crucial aspects of our nature, leaving them starved for attention. The right person can shine a light on those more neglected aspects of our nature and remind us that these aspects of our selves are dignified and deserving of our fondness too.
We all have friends who introduced us to things we now love. Maybe a new genre of music or a new taste in furniture. We might even have friends who inspire competitiveness, pushing us to work hard and strive for new academic or professional heights, showing us a new side of ourselves that we didn’t know existed.
Lastly, if we want to be known, we must also seek to know. We must ask questions that delve into the murky depths of our friendships. We must recognize that conscious effort to deepen a relationship is neither shameful nor embarrassing, but the mark of self-awareness and proactivity. We all dream of leaving our relationships on auto-pilot and finding ourselves at a coffee shop four decades down the road with a band of lifelong friends, our grey heads tilted back, laughing to the ceiling. These moments will not be ours without deliberate effort and a little risk-taking.
A life in isolation is hardly a life at all. Deep, fulfilling relationships are a cornerstone of happiness, adding colour and texture to our experiences. Using our authentic selves, we can build relationships that energize and inspire us, but it requires us to show up and let our authentic selves be known. This is a scary, but rewarding, journey.
Friendship, however, is a team sport. We must show interest and try to understand our friends too. There are volumes to our loved ones to which we are completely blind, and it would move us to know those quiet, hidden parts of them. And we can work to solve the problems that interest us to find those we most want to be around. It’s a lot to think about, but it’s an investment worth making.
Our happiness depends on it.